Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Six Feet Under: “Parallel Play”

Illustration for article titled iSix Feet Under/i: “Parallel Play”
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

“Parallel Play” (season four, episode three; originally aired 6/27/2004)

Slumber party! A giggling gaggle of girls thumb through the phone book looking for rubes to prank-call. They settle on a listing for a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Gurvitz, and ask poor Mrs. Gurvitz to “tell him he left his underwear here.” Mrs. Gurvitz’s anger rises until she realizes it’s a prank, as the girls on the other end of the phone can no longer contain their laughter. One girl in particular is so overcome by glee that it consumes her. Kaitlin Elise Stolte, 1989-2003.


As Rico prepares Kaitlin’s body for viewing, with her face frozen in a contorted smile, he wonders what she found so funny. Maybe she was amused by a married couple whose bond could be upset so easily—their trust dissolving with the mere mention of another woman’s underwear. The Gurvitzes aren’t quite the tidy unit that their phone-book listing would have you believe. And their little fight kicks off an episode that examines the closeness of the characters’ relationships—are they really as tightly bonded as they appear to be, or as they claim to be? Or are they just engaging in “parallel play”?

That phrase offers a lens for an episode that doesn’t exactly count among Six Feet Under’s liveliest hours. It’s introduced into the show’s lexicon by Madeline, a divorcee in Nate’s “Mommy & Me” exercise class, as a way to describe toddlers’ desultory social habits: “At this age, they play next to each other instead of with each other,” she explains. It’s the “at this age” part that proves to be Nate’s undoing. Madeline’s parenting books ascribe the phenomenon to little kids, but as Nate sees, it’s a dynamic that can set in just as easily among adults.


As Nate considers female companionship for the first time since Lisa’s death, Maya provides a way for him to dip his toe in the water. He arranges a playdate at Madeline’s place as a thin excuse to peek into Madeline’s lifestyle. She’s a stay-at-home mom with a pair of nannies—excuse me, a nanny and a housekeeper—and she finds her smoothie-drinking existence as a divorced mom to be “better than I expected.” Plus, she’s got a book by a Zen Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, which means that she’s into the sort of grand life philosophies that Nate collects like baseball cards. No wonder he’s on board: “It smells so good in here,” he says, like a hungry kid savoring the aroma of a neighbor’s fresh chocolate-chip cookies.

Still, he hesitates. “It’s okay,” Madeline says as she hovers over him, caressing his face. “What’s okay?” he asks. She leans down to kiss him. Nate might have been better off if she answered the question. Madeline thinks she’s comforting a widower on the verge of the first sexual experience since his wife died. And maybe she’s imagining her experience with divorce as a rough equivalent to the death of Nate’s wife. In any case, Nate interprets their tryst as something meaningful—despite his initial caution—and in fact it’s not okay.


Later, after another afternoon delight, Nate lingers in those glorious sheets, treating Madeline’s bed as his own. He wants to play house; she only wants to play doctor. And that’s the end of this playdate. “Do I just cease to exist, and so do you?” he cries at the end of a tantrum. He stops just short of spelling out “I AM PROJECTING MY DEAD-WIFE ISSUES ONTO YOU, MADAM” in semaphore. The sheets go through an interesting transformation of meaning here, too. They look so white, clean, and airy when giddy post-coital Nate jumps into them. At that moment, they’re an emblem of a fresh start. But there’s a twist after Nate and Madeline have their falling-out, and the whiteness is recast as a snowy Arctic cold, with Nate curled up in a fetal position amid his loneliness.

The bedding motif reappears in the final-scene bonfire when Nate tosses the sheets and covers from his and Lisa’s bed into the flames. This is a new turn: Earlier in the episode, Nate answers Claire’s request for garage-sale junk by saying, “Everything I have, I need.” And that’s what you’d expect him to say. Since Lisa’s death, Nate has been a hoarder, poring over every bit of his married life—tangible and intangible—as he continually strip-mines them for answers. The bonfire marks a moment where Nate accepts that he’ll never find all the answers he’s looking for, so in fact he doesn’t “need” to hold onto all this stuff. He and Lisa shared a bed, and Nate’s never going to sleep in that bed again. Admitting that is a big step forward.


Brenda and Joe are also looking for answers between the sheets. Joe’s an attentive lover, but when Brenda tries to shower a little attention on him, he loses interest. He doesn’t like being in charge, as we can see in the bathroom scene: While Brenda washes her face, he perches on the edge of the bathtub, his body scrunched up like a little boy. (There’s infantilizing imagery dotted throughout this episode—like Nate’s fetal huddle under the sheets, mentioned above—which accentuates the toddler “parallel play” theme.) When Joe haltingly shares his desire for dominant-submissive fun—with him in the latter role—we get a little of the old world-weary “I’ve seen it all” Brenda. “I know everyone has their thing,” she says, and then she rattles off all the different sexual adventures she’s had, the same way Daenerys Stormborn’s retainers might recite her various titles.

Let’s not be too hard on Brenda, though, because she’s afraid. She’s afraid that exciting sex is a slippery slope that will send her back into the morass of addiction. Sure, the “normal sex” that she prefers may be boring, but she’s okay with that because boring sex lets her feel like she’s still in control. That makes Joe’s proposition an intriguing one, once Brenda hears him out. He loves having her in control; he just wants her to own it.


Brenda can see Joe’s logic, but she remains cautious. He observes that good sex ought to be a “revealing” of themselves, adding, “I think that could be a loving thing, too, right?” She barely acknowledges this with a short murmur, but Joe keeps going. “Don’t take Brenda apart and just sort of hand me the good stuff,” he says, which is exactly what she’s been doing. Brenda is scared to reveal that “bad stuff” to herself, let alone to another person. So she doesn’t really respond to this sentiment, either, instead answering Joe with a laugh that says, in essence, “Aw, you’re such a sweetheart.” Rachel Griffiths performs this scene with extraordinary delicacy. He wants her to engage fully with him, and in her reactions, you can hear that she still plans to operate their relationship on parallel tracks.

In season four, David and Keith have played together rather than merely adjacent to each other—I mean, did you see them dance? Flush with cash and finally enjoying harmony at home, they feel the urge to spread their love, so they sort of adopt Arthur at the clothing store. “We should buy him a whole new wardrobe,” Keith says. David opts to start with just one suit, and the gesture isn’t lost on Arthur. “If I had a father,” he says, “this is the kind of thing he’d do for me—or even an elder sibling.”


Right after Arthur is made to feel like a part of the family, though, Ruth makes him feel like an outcast by accusing him of being the mysterious poop-sender. The scene turns on a key line: “I know you’re frustrated, Arthur, as you sit idly by while George and I fall deeper and deeper in love each day.” Ruth pushes this statement a touch too hard, revealing that she doesn’t entirely believe it. No, she and George aren’t falling deeper in love each day. Whenever we see them together, he’s wearing that same blank stare—it’s become almost a uniform by now—and she’s flitting around him, trying to connect. They’re a picture of parallel play (although I hesitate to characterize George as playful).

Ruth can sense it. Maybe George can, too, and he doesn’t care. Yet it worries Ruth more and more. Her concern shows through when the latest pile of poop arrives. Okay, nobody likes getting a gift basket of feces on the doorstop, but is it really “a catastrophe of the highest order”? No. Ruth wants to raise the stakes so that she and George will find common cause: “This involves both of us now,” she insists, presumably on the basis that her name was on the card. George once again disappoints her, maintaining his distance and nattering on about all the enemies he has made in the controversial field of geology. He’s content to reside in Georgeland, population one.


Claire observes the garage sale with her usual discerning eye, asking her mother, “Are we just selling our stuff to make room for George?” Ruth dodges the question because the answer is “yes,” at least in part. Her marriage is stalled, and she’s looking for a solution. Maybe she needs to clean house so that George can feel at home, comfortable, unfettered by the vestiges of Ruth’s past.

It’s Arthur’s misfortune that, in Ruth’s eyes, he happens to be one of those vestiges. It’s fair to wonder if Ruth even cares whether Arthur was the perpetrator or not. Either way, she just wants to cut him loose. Arthur is rightly offended, as he’s not some mere “mammy jar” to be tossed out on the lawn. “I do harbor feelings. I’m human, and I’m a man,” he says. And then, once he leaves, he returns to The Sims, a game that renders human interaction as a set of easy-to-understand metrics—an appealing fantasy.


Ruth doesn’t waste any time telling George that Arthur was their common foe, and she reveals that she had a dalliance with the erstwhile Fisher & Diaz intern. This scene may be the most poignant evocation of the parallel play theme in the episode. Ruth struggles to describe the intimacy she shared with Arthur because it was a singular dynamic, peculiar to the two of them. It may have been weird and fraught, but they were at least playing together. “We understood each other. We had similar interests,” she says. And what does George do? He belittles their bond. “It’s called a folie à deux,” he observes from his ivory tower of all knowledge, “two people confusing a momentary insanity for love.” That’s not exactly what a folie à deux is, but the Formica incident demonstrated that George Sibley isn’t a stickler for accuracy.

In any case, Ruth has now cleaned house. Has it brought her closer to her husband? Well, look who she ends up standing next to at the end of the episode. It’s not George. It’s Nate, with both of them wearing the same expression of frustration and ennui. They look to be both together and parallel at once, a fitting image to close out the episode.


Stray observations:

  • As usual, please try to restrain discussion of upcoming episodes to the first comment thread, so those who haven’t seen the whole series can collapse that first comment thread to remain unaware of events to come.
  • “I thought if we put a plan in place, we’d be free to deviate”: I apologize for the intermittent posting of these reviews lately. Suffice to say that June brought a hellish workload, and while I love to write about Six Feet Under, it is a time-consuming project. Expect fewer interruptions for the remainder of the summer.
  • Claire’s interest in Edie is still in its nascent stage, so there’s not much to say about her this week (which is a bit of a bummer, as I enjoy writing about Claire). I actually found her interactions with Anita more compelling than the Edie stuff, at least in the context of the episode’s main theme. Anita’s boozy party-animal mentality, contrasted against Claire’s earthy angst, made me realize that Claire has probably played in parallel with her female friends all her life—she certainly does so with Anita, and she was the same way with Parker. In that context, it makes sense that she would find energetic, authentic Edie so magnetic. When was the last time she found a woman her age who could relate to her? This might be a first.
  • And now it’s time for this week’s Obligatory Mention Of The Rico-Sophia Storyline. In this episode, Sophia cries until Rico gives her money. That concludes this week’s Obligatory Mention Of The Rico-Sophia Storyline.
  • My effort to discover whether Rico’s “full macue” technique was a real thing turned up one embalmer’s “tricks of the trade” page that does indeed confirm the terminology. It also led me to a weird poem, and the funny thing is, that isn’t even unusual. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve stumbled onto some strange bit of LiveJournal verse after Googling Six Feet Under mortician terms.
  • Every time Keith uses the toilet on this show, he gets in trouble for it. First with Lisa, and now with his boss. People, the guy just wants to take a crap in peace!
  • Before they were stars: It’s hard to miss a pre-Deadwood, pre-Breaking Bad Anna Gunn in the role of Madeline, but did you glimpse Andy Forrest—Parks And Recreation’s Kyle—as matrimonially faithful sleep enthusiast Jeremy Gurvitz? Even if you didn’t, now you know: He was the guy who played that guy. This knowledge is sure to make you a hit at your next cocktail party or social affair.
  • Since I gave a kudos to Rachel Griffiths, I should also say that Frances Conroy was excellent in this episode, too. She plays Ruth both for laughs and for pathos in the poop scene, and the scene where she tries to explain her relationship with Arthur is another highlight. Conroy deftly balances Ruth’s two competing impulses: She wants to honor her authentic connection with Arthur, but she also plays it down to ingratiate herself to George.
  • I always laugh at the fact that none of the Fishers—not even Ruth, really—give any credence to George’s delusions of grandeur. “Oil, Claire. Oil.” Shut up, George. (Related: It’s so satisfying when Claire rightly tells George to put his decorative tin of dung in the garbage himself.)

Share This Story

Get our newsletter